An experimental brain implant allows a paralyzed man to turn thoughts into words –

of Silvia Turin

Pancho can now suggest 18 words per minute with his mind. The first sentence since 2003 was: My family out there. The 38-year-old man, paralyzed since he was in a car accident at the age of 20

University of California researchers managed to implant a paralyzed man in the brain experimental implant, based on electrodes, which allowed him to do produce words and sentences understandable on the computer, simply by trying to tell them.

Pancho’s challenge

a milestone in research that attempts to translate thoughts into forms of communication, even if, scientists specify, the electrodes do not read minds, but they detect brain signals corresponding to each word that one has in mind to say, then an algorithm (and later a computer) formulates on a screen the proposals of corresponding words or phrases.
Happy experimenter of the new technology was Pancho, nickname of a 38enne who accepted the challenge three years ago. He was paralyzed following a car accident at the age of 20For years, Pancho communicated by typing words on a computer using a pointer attached to a baseball cap, a slow and tiring method.

The long exercise

The man chose to make himself implanting a rectangular sheet containing 128 electrodes in the brain, designed to detect the signals of sensory and motor processes related to speech and the mouth, lips, jaw, tongue and larynx. The plant was connected to a computer and, in 50 exercise sessions in 81 weeks, the man was asked to try to say a few words from a list of 50 common headwords. As he did so, the electrodes transmitted signals through a form of artificial intelligence trying to recognize the words. In nearly half of the 9,000 times Pancho has tried to say single words, the algorithm has guessed right. By channeling the results of the algorithm through some sort of linguistic prediction system with automatic correction (like the one used by cell phones for conversations), the computer correctly recognized the single words in the sentences almost three quarters of the time and he has perfectly decoded entire sentences more than half the time.

18 words per minute

The results are already excellent: with the method usually used, Pancho could type about 5 correct words per minute. Through the electrodes, Pancho communicated 15 to 18 words per minute. Normal conversation is about 150 words per minute, but the man is already getting better and better his brain is somehow adjusting to the new system. His first recognizable sentence, the researchers said, was: My family out there. Three years ago, when Pancho agreed to work with researchers in the Department of Neurological Surgery at the University of California, scientists weren’t sure that his brain had retained the mechanisms of language. Instead the areas of the brain they were dormant and they woke up. The research, published in the New England Journal of Medicine yet another fertile field that is trying to help people with brain injuries or victims of diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or cerebral palsy to communicate better by overcoming the limit of insufficient muscle control.

July 15, 2021 (change July 15, 2021 | 15:02)


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